You’re looking at the critical first manufacturing step being taken to get the United States on the way to Mars.
NASA has just published a whole set of images taken on Saturday in the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where Lockheed Martin engineers welded together the first two segments of the Orion crew module, in preparation for the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1, pdf).
The core of the Orion spacecraft consists of seven large aluminum pieces. The first weld connects the tunnel, that allow astronauts to move between the module and other spacecraft, to the forward bulkhead, which houses many critical systems such as the reentry parachutes.
Welding a spacecraft, however, requires the highest possible technology level our age can offer. As the official NASA press release states:
Engineers have undertaken a meticulous process to prepare for welding. They have cleaned the segments, coated them with a protective chemical and primed them. They then outfitted each element with strain gauges and wiring to monitor the metal during the fabrication process. Prior to beginning work on the pieces destined for space, technicians practiced their process, refined their techniques and ensured proper tooling configurations by welding together a pathfinder, a full-scale version of the current spacecraft design.
Through collaborations across design and manufacturing, teams have been able to reduce the number of welds for the crew module by more than half since the first test version of Orion’s primary structure was constructed and flown on the Exploration Flight Test-1 last December. The Exploration Mission-1 structure will include just seven main welds, plus several smaller welds for start and stop holes left by welding tools. Fewer welds will result in a lighter spacecraft.
During the coming months as other pieces of Orion’s primary structure arrive at Michoud from machine houses across the country, engineers will inspect and evaluate them to ensure they meet precise design requirements before welding. Once complete, the structure will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida where it will be assembled with the other elements of the spacecraft, integrated with SLS and processed before launch.
According to the plans, when everything is completed the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) flight will test Orion and SLS (Space Launch System) rocket together on September 30th 2018, and the spacecraft will fly around the Moon during a seven day mission. Until then, feast your eyes on these awesome factory photos.